It isn’t uncommon for top diplomats to pen their memoirs after they retire. Many of these books contain invaluable information about events in important capitals that shaped or changed history. However, there is almost nothing in these accounts of life away from the corridors of power. One brilliant exception to this is a 1955 book by Sardar Kavalam Madhava Panikkar (K M Panikkar) titled In Two Chinas. Memoirs of a Diplomat.
Perhaps the fact that Panikkar was a journalist at one time and even served as the editor of the Hindustan Times, helped him think of a much wider audience when writing his memoirs. He started his tenure as India’s ambassador to China in 1948 and first served in Nanking when the country was controlled by the Chiang Kai-shek regime. When the Chinese Communists defeated the Nationalists, Panikkar like most foreign ambassadors left China. He was reappointed as India’s ambassador to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and went back to the country to serve in Peking, as Beijing was then called.
What made Panikkar’s memoirs special was his description of the city, its food and cultural life in the early 1950s.
Major restoration works
The book was published just three years after Panikkar left Beijing, so his impressions of the city were still fresh. He had seen the city before and after the establishment of the PRC and couldn’t help but comment on the welcome changes.
“The thing that impressed me most in Peking was the extraordinary building activity that was going on,” he wrote. “The communists were anxious not to interfere with the beauty of Old Peking. So far as the old buildings like the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and the Temple of Confucius were concerned, the communists concerned themselves mainly with repairs and with undoing the neglect of the past.”
Panikkar had visited the Temple of Heaven in 1948 and said “the sight it had presented would have broken the heart of the coldest Philistine,” adding that it had been turned into a “filthy and evil-smelling lavatory” then. He was thrilled to see it cleaned and restored in 1950.
He noticed how much effort was put into cleaning the city: “In a short time they had cleared away the accumulated dirt of the Beihai, the beautiful series of artificial lakes in the centre of the city. Fine parks were laid out on its shores and even the white pagoda on top of the hill was repaired and repainted.”
Panikkar said the authorities were not as sensitive about some of the other older buildings, recounting how the Palace of Agriculture was converted into a stadium and that a police school was “perhaps, appropriately” established in the Temple of Confucius. “The great Lama Temple was left untouched, perhaps in consideration of the Mongolian and Tibetan Buddhists,” he added.
Speaking of the overall changes, Panikkar said, “Generally it was clear that the new regime was anxious to cater to the working classes.”
Culinary and cultural delights
Not being constrained by too many food restrictions, Panikkar happily tried out various kinds of cuisines on offer in Beijing. “The Chinese restaurants of Peking were of course a perpetual source of joy,” he wrote. “In a spirit of adventure we wandered all over Peking in search of them.”
He particularly looked out for places that offered provincial specialities. “The most interesting and perhaps the most famous of these places is the Mongolian restaurant near the Bell Tower,” the ambassador wrote. “It is an amazing place, a broken-down hut in a narrow street among malodorous surroundings. It faces one of the extensions of the Beihai Lake. There were but three small rooms and the bitter north wind kept coming through uncovered patches in the roof. But the place itself was scrupulously clean. In the central room was a big oven where the customer cooked his own meat.” Panikkar immensely enjoyed putting the mutton on a wok and cooking it to his taste, using the sauces and greens provided by the eatery.
The ambassador also wrote about musical evenings, ballets and the Peking Opera. “One of the most interesting performances I witnessed was by the celebrated female impersonator Mei Lan-fang in a play entitled The Legend of Peony Pavilion,” he wrote. The first time I saw Mei Lan-fang act, it almost took my breath away. Mei was then 56, but he was acting the part of a girl of 20.” Panikkar only found out the actor was an older man when told by a regular patron of the theatre.
Panikkar’s memoirs from China contain a wealth of information about life in the Beijing and other parts of the country in the early 1950s. The diplomat’s writing is a refreshing and welcome change for those used to condescending travelogues from his western contemporaries whose fear of East Asians and their customs deeply made them lose any sense of objectivity.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)